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Maggie Daley, Chicago’s gracious first lady


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Updated: December 26, 2011 8:00AM

Maggie Daley was everything her husband was not.

While the former mayor stood fixed in the glare of endless media attention for 22 years, his wife did her good works quietly, behind the scenes.

On Thursday, she died in her bed at home about 6 p.m., surrounded by family after a long struggle with cancer. There will be a public wake for Mrs. Daley from noon to 10 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Her funeral mass will follow at 10:30 a.m. Monday at Old St. Patrick’s Church, 700 W. Adams.

While her husband could be angry, flustered and sputtering, Maggie Daley was cool, well-spoken and unflappable. The public record does not preserve an example of her losing her temper.

And while the mayor could be the object of fierce dislike, the First Lady was as beloved a figure as Chicago has ever seen or is ever likely to.

One friend, who saw her Thursday morning but asked not to be identified, described her as being very much at peace and in no pain.

Maggie Daley, 68, was a very private woman in a very public role.

She avoided all political controversies, public displays and conspicuous behavior. She never gave an in-depth interview about being the wife of the mayor of Chicago, not once in the near quarter century her husband, Richard, was in office. There is no entry for Mrs. Daley on Wikipedia.

Instead Chicago’s First Lady would occasionally speak out, in a clear, passionate and careful manner, about her favorite causes and charities, at first involving the arts and young people, then, increasingly over the past decade, relating to cancer, which she was first diagnosed with in 2002.

Chicagoans, who already admired her before she became sick, viewed Mrs. Daley’s nine-year battle against breast cancer with a universal respect and unbroken affection that few public figures in Chicago life have received.

Despite her reticence, Maggie Daley’s many exceptional qualities nevertheless became public knowledge, filtering out from the Chicagoans who interacted with her through her charitable work, and through her broad circle of devoted and protective friends, who occasionally felt compelled to break the wall of silence surrounding the Daley family to praise her sense of humor, her sincere desire to help people, her love for family and her unassuming nature. She also was involved in a variety of causes, and did not shrink from the public eye to increase awareness about a social need or help a charity she cared about.

It was a tribute to the reverence that Mrs. Daley earned in this city that, after her diagnosis of metastic breast cancer was publicly revealed in June 2002, the response in the media was muted — no shouted questions to the mayor, no stand-up reports in front of their home. Mrs. Daley remained a private figure during a series of operations designed to combat the cancer and its effects, itself an accomplishment in this 24-hour media age.

Consistently upbeat, always attempting to deflect attention from herself and onto the less fortunate, Mrs. Daley lived far longer than her initial dire medical prognosis had predicted. In July 2006 she had surgery to remove a tumor in her right breast. In April 2009, she underwent a biopsy of a lesion on her spine, a sign that her metastatic breast cancer had spread to the bone. In March 2010, a foot-long titanium rod was inserted in her right leg to support the bone, weakened by radiation treatments.

His wife’s illness took an obvious emotional toll on the mayor — questioned about her illness, his eyes would well with tears and he’d be at a loss for words. But when he announced last September that he would not seek re-election, many assumed that Mrs. Daley’s condition had to be a factor in his decision, a supposition the mayor vigorously denied. “She has nothing to do with it,” he said at the time.

Mrs. Daley did work — at times she was president of Pathways Awareness Foundation, a not-for-profit group working for disabled children. She was chairwoman of the Chicago Cultural Center Foundation and served on the board of the Terra Foundation for the Arts, a position she resigned from in 2002, over a controversy related to relocating the Terra Museum. She also worked for the Golden Apple Foundation and the Children at the Crossroads Foundation. Some of these jobs were quite lucrative; in 2006, she was paid $100,000 from the Academy of Achievement, an organization that holds leadership seminars. Though these jobs were rarely mentioned while her husband was in office, and he denounced any reference to them as an insult to his wife.

She was born Margaret Ann Corbett on July 21, 1943. Her father, Patrick Corbett, owned an auto parts dealership in Pittsburgh. She grew up in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

She was a graduate of the University of Dayton, where she was elected “Senior Farewell Queen’’ by her classmates and graduated in 1965 with a major in history.

Moving to Chicago, she worked as a sales representative for Xerox Learning Systems and met a newly minted lawyer, Richard M. Daley, at a party in November 1970.

The couple married on March 25, 1972.

When her husband was first running for mayor, Mrs. Daley had a slightly more public role. She appeared in television commercials for his campaign and, during his first successful run for the mayor’s office in 1989, answered a few questions about the Daley family’s private life for a Wall Street Journal profile.

She was actually a polished public speaker — much more so than her husband. When Mayor Daley was out of town during a 1994 visit by former Soviet premiere Mikhail Gorbachev and Mrs. Daley stood in, hosting a celebratory dinner, she was by all accounts dazzling.

Most of her public utterances related to her many civic and charitable activities. She was the motivating force and chief advocate of Gallery 37, back when it was a student arts program she ran on the empty parcel of Loop land — known as Block 37 — that her husband finally pushed toward development after years of frustration.

She usually kept out of the mayor’s official duties, but did, in 1996, take charge of re-decorating his office on the Fifth floor of City Hall. That year she also helped with planning for the transition of Meigs Field to park land.

The closest she came to controversy was in 2003, when the Better Government Association questioned the propriety of two of Mrs. Daley’s close friends receiving part of lucrative concession contracts at O’Hare Airport.

Mrs. Daley received a number of honors in 2010 — DePaul dedicated the Richard M. and Maggie C. Daley Building on its Loop campus. Northwestern Memorial Hospital unveiled the Maggie Daley Center for Women’s Cancer Care, located at Prentice Women’s Hospital, 250 E. Superior.

“She didn’t contribute money for this,” said Dr. Steve Rosen, Mrs. Daley’s cancer specialist at Northwestern. “This was in honor of her — because of who she is, how special she is and what she inspires in people ... because of the heroic strength she’s demonstrated while continuing to battle cancer.”

Survivors, in addition to her husband, include the three Daley children, Nora Daley Conroy, Patrick and Elizabeth Daley Hotchkiss. Another son, Kevin died before his third birthday in 1981 from complications of spina bifida. She is also survived by three grandchildren. Services are pending.

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Bill Zwecker

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